When speaking with stakeholders about the future of coral reefs, many managers have been faced with difficult questions such as “If coral reefs are dying anyway, isn’t trying to protect them futile?” or “Isn’t climate change just going to kill coral reefs anyway?” Some people may argue that current resources in coral research and protection should be reprogrammed to protect other habitats. Responses to “doom and gloom” questions often highlight the value of protecting reefs due to the incredible diversity of life they support and their tremendous benefits to people in terms of coastal protection, medicine, food, livelihoods, and tourism revenue. It is critically important to share with stakeholders the rapidly developing scientific research which demonstrates the resilience and adaptation potential of coral reefs to changing conditions. It is always important to communicate that resilience can be supported by specific management strategies.
What do experts say?
“Theoretically you could apply this argument (that we should not bother because reefs are dying and climate change) to every ecosystem. According to a recent report, ref many natural habitats worldwide are showing serious declines including: freshwater wetlands, sea ice habitats, salt marshes, coral reefs, seagrass beds, and shellfish reefs. So, why bother? We bother because there are success stories where human actions have made a difference in coral reef recovery. We also bother because human communities around the world depend directly on coral reefs for survival.”
“What we are learning about how reefs respond to stressors is telling us not to throw our hands up in defeat. In fact, recent science on reefs has revealed new layers of complexity — specifically, high variability in response to some of the climate stressors we are most concerned about such as warming seas and changing ocean chemistry. For example, in 2007, McClanahan et al. ref found that populations that have experienced previous temperature variability are more likely to be resistant to future temperature stress. This trend was confirmed by Conservancy scientists in their analysis of bleaching response in the 2010 bleaching event that occurred across Southeast Asia. This year, in a paper in Current Biology, Hughes et al. ref showed that changes in ocean conditions are more likely to result in re-assortment of species rather than wholesale loss of entire reef ecosystems.”
“Replacing reefs with engineered systems is NOT cost-effective. When you compare the cost of directly repairing (actively restoring) the predicted damage done to the Great Barrier Reef with the cost of holding global temperature change to +2°C and CO2 concentrations to 450 ppm as per estimates derived from the 2007 IPCC 4th Assessment Report. The two costs were comparable. Restoring just the Great Barrier Reef would cost as much as dealing with global climate change in the aggregate.”
Ove Hoegh-Goldberg ICRS 2012 Plenary Presentation
Talking Points for Common Questions
Won’t climate change just kill the reefs anyway?
- It is true that coral reefs are sensitive to changes in temperature and pH, and climate change is raising ocean temperatures and making oceans more acidic. However, many coral species are able to cope with these changes.
- Corals worldwide have been living in fluctuating environments. For example, in American Samoa, some corals thrive in temperatures between 92-93°F, generally considered too hot for corals.
- Corals have shown remarkable resilience through major climate events and sea level changes, giving hope for their continued survival.
- Climate change won’t cause coral reefs to disappear, however, the abundance and distribution of corals will change. There will be winners and losers, resulting in reef communities that may look very different from those that exist today.
Why should we protect coral reefs?
- Coral reef ecosystems support a variety of human needs. They are important for subsistence, fisheries, tourism, shoreline protection, and yield compounds that are important in the development of new medicines.
- At least 1 billion people worldwide directly benefit from coral reefs; nearly 1 billion get protein from coral reef fish, while a half a billion people depend on coral reefs for their livelihoods. ref
- Coral reefs are home to 25% of the world’s ocean marine life, even though coral reefs only comprise 1/10th of 1% of the marine environment.
- By one estimate, coral reefs provide economic goods and ecosystem services worth about $375 billion each year to millions of people. ref
- Studies show that on average, countries with coral reef industries derive more than half of their gross national product from them. A good example can be found in Bonaire, a small Caribbean island. Bonaire earns about USD $23 million annually from coral reef activities, yet managing its marine park costs less than $1 million per year. ref
- More than 100 countries in the world benefit from coral reef tourism. ref
- For people who live in areas near coral reefs, coral reefs are an important part of their lives. Reefs are directly linked with their traditional, spiritual, and cultural values.
- Reefs serve as a buffer, protecting in-shore areas from ocean waves. Without coral reefs, many beaches and buildings would become more vulnerable to wave action and storm damage.
- Coral reefs save lives. Several important drugs have already been developed from chemicals found in coral reef organisms including treatments for cardiovascular diseases, ulcers, leukemia, and skin cancer.
My community depends on food from the reef. Why should we worry about the future of our coral’s health when we need fish to eat now?
- Coral reefs provide irreplaceable sources of food and shelter to many fish species, including juvenile fish.
- Corals are an integral part of the reef; they are the foundational species that provide reef structure, the home for fish species that support local communities. To ensure healthy fish populations now and in the future, it is important to protect their homes and nursery grounds.
- Coral reefs contain over 4,000 species of fish as well as other edible invertebrates and contribute about one-quarter of the total marine catch in developing countries.
Coral reefs are dying because of climate change from industrialized countries. What can we, as coral reef managers, do that will make a difference in the face of climate change?
- By addressing local stressors to coral reefs and building resilience into the design of MPAs and management actions, managers can do something to reduce the expected damage from climate-related impacts.
- Maintaining healthy coral reef communities is the first line of defense against any major or minor disturbance. Corals that are already under stress are at a greater disadvantage when facing additional stressful conditions, such as elevated sea temperatures. Therefore, if managers are faced with limited choices in terms of steps to take in the face of rising sea temperatures, reducing all other threats will be a priority.
- Reducing stresses that may affect coral community condition (e.g., overfishing, pollution, agricultural and urban waste, silt, and sewage, etc.) will provide communities a greater chance to survive bleaching stress or other major disturbance.